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Researching the Causes of Radicalization and Violent Extremism: What Do We Know?

Researching the Causes of Radicalization and Violent Extremism: What Do We Know?

This analysis appears in the Special Issue on Countering Hate and Violent Extremism of the Peace Science Digest in collaboration with Thought Partnerships. 

This analysis summarizes and reflects on the following research: Vergani, M., Iqbal, M., Ilbahar, E., & Barton, G. (2020). The three Ps of radicalization: Push, pull and personal. A systematic scoping review of the scientific evidence about radicalization into violent extremism. Studies in Conflict & Terrorism, 43(10), 854-854. https://doi.org/10.1080/1057610X.2018.1505686

Talking Points

  • Peer-reviewed research on radicalization and violent extremism identifies a “basic structure of the process of radicalization” where an individual has “real or perceived political grievance(s),” perceives participation in violent extremism as somehow appealing or beneficial, and has a “personal vulnerability” expressed as certain personality traits or a mental health concern.
  • Various research studies have revealed common push, pull, and personal factors in both behavioral and cognitive radicalization across geographic and ideological difference.
  • Previous academic research focuses predominantly on pull and push factors of radicalization with little focus on personal factors—a gap that may be driven by a lack of available biographical data.

Key Insight for Informing Practice

  • Shifting our attention to the personal factors that lead (predominately) young men to engage in violent extremism highlights the relationship between hegemonic masculinity and the broader acceptability of violence, which together help make violent extremism possible.

Summary

Following the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, a flurry of academic work emerged on the factors of radicalization—defined as “the path that leads an individual to endorse or commit a politically motivated act of violence” (or, more simply, the path to violent extremism). Matteo Vergani, Muhammad Iqbal, Ekin Ilbahar, and Greg Barton conducted a scoping review of existing academic research to identify under-researched topics and universal factors that predict radicalization. Overall, they find support for a “basic structure of the process of radicalization” where an individual has “real or perceived political grievance(s),” perceives participation in violent extremism as somehow appealing or beneficial, and has a “personal vulnerability” expressed as relevant personality traits or mental health concerns. 

Violent extremism: The “use or support [of] violence to advance a cause based on exclusionary group identities.”Even on the basis of this definition, violent extremism can take many forms—from identity-based hate crimes to acts of terrorism and large-scale, organized political violence—and, as such, encompasses a continuum of attitudes and behaviors that transcend precise categorization.

SFCG. (2017). Transforming violent extremism: A peacebuilder’s guide. Retrieved August 23, 2021, from https://www.sfcg.org/wp-content/uploads/2017/04/Transforming-Violent-Extremism-V2-August-2017.pdf

In total, the scoping review included 148 peer-reviewed articles published in English and grounded in empirical evidence that explored factors explaining why individuals would support violent extremism. Articles were organized by several key terms and categories (defined below) that help explain the drivers of radicalization:

Behavioral radicalization

“Focuses on an individual’s engagement in violent extremism.”

Cognitive radicalization

“Focuses on an individual’s adoption and internalization of violent and extremist beliefs.”

Push factors

“The structural root causes of terrorism that drive people towards resorting to violence, [for example,] state repression, relative deprivation, poverty, and injustice.”

Pull factors

“The aspects that make extremist groups and lifestyles appealing to some people, [for example,] ideology, group belonging, group mechanisms, and other incentives.”

Personal factors

“Individual characteristics that make certain individuals more vulnerable than their circumstantially comparable peers to radicalization.”

A descriptive overview of the articles included in this scoping review reveals:

  • 7% focus on behavioral radicalization whereas 22.3% focus on cognitive radicalization.
  • 4% cite pull factors, 57.4% cite push factors, and 39.2% cite personal factors as drivers of radicalization.
  • Regarding the geographic scope of articles, 46.6% focus on Europe, North America, and Australia, 12.8% on the Middle East and Central Asia, 5.4% on Africa, and 16.9% on multiple countries across regions.
  • Regarding which ideologies were studied, 53.4% focused on Islamic extremism, 9% on far-right ideologies, 20.9% on multiple ideologies, and 6.8% on other ideologies not specified in this review.

Of the articles that identify push factors, “the relative deprivation of a social group,” state repression, unemployment, and level of education are most frequently cited as drivers of radicalization. Push factors are cited more as a driver of group radicalization but also appear frequently in research on individual radicalization when paired with personal factors. Further, push factors are identified and appear in similar proportions in research across geographic areas, particularly those factors defined as “indicators of disadvantage” like inequality, exclusion, unemployment, or poverty.

Of the articles that identify pull factors, the “consumption of extremist propaganda” was the most frequently cited factor, followed by group dynamics like peer pressure, belonging and social identity, or forming strong bonds with like-minded people; charismatic leaders, material incentives, and the emotional appeal of violence and/or adventure are other frequently cited drivers of radicalization. Pull factors are close to equally cited in articles on cognitive and behavioral radicalization. Additionally, pull factors are cited consistently throughout articles of varying geographic scope, except for economic incentives, which do not appear in research focused on North America, Europe, and Australia.

Of the articles that identify personal factors, an individual’s mental health, certain personality traits (i.e., narcissism, black-and-white type of thinking, or impulsiveness), and certain demographic characteristics (i.e., young, male, and born in the country where they live) are associated with radicalization. Personal factors of radicalization are cited more frequently in studies on lone-wolf terrorism and appear in roughly half of articles on individual radicalization. Interestingly, personal factors of radicalization are more frequently cited in studies focused on North America, Europe, and Australia in comparison to the rest of the world. 

This scoping review shows a dominant focus in academic research on push and pull factors of radicalization with little focus on personal factors—which may be driven by a lack of available biographical data in the field (especially outside of North America, Europe, and Australia). While the social, political, and economic context driving radicalization differs across geographic regions and ideologies, this study finds universal factors of radicalization across this difference.

Informing Practice

One clear take-away from this scoping review is the call for more research on personal factors contributing to radicalization, especially beyond the focus on lone-wolf terrorism. A potential starting point is to focus our attention on the demographic group that dominates participation in violent extremism across geographic and ideological divides: young men. Why does it appear that young men are more susceptible to radicalization and violent extremism? Emerging research in this space should not only gain a deeper understanding of personal factors contributing to radicalization but also contextualize those personal factors in a broader social framework of patriarchy, hegemonic masculinity, misogyny/misogynoir, and militarization. Further, a gender analysis of men’s participation in violence must be at the center of interventions designed to prevent and mitigate violent extremism.  

The first step is to reject uncritical assumptions that unequivocally associate desirable masculinity with violence and to understand that men are also gendered, meaning that they are also socialized with expected social roles and/or behaviors that are tied to their biological or assigned sex at birth. How can researchers and practitioners disentangle radicalization and violent extremism from socially acceptable behavior when violence is sometimes considered acceptable behavior? Most of us live in societies where violence is not rejected outright as a viable means to manage conflict. It follows that men’s participation in violence is actively encouraged in some instances where it can be construed as a social good. Consider for instance the debate on guns in the United States: Many people believe that more “good guys with guns” is a viable solution to mass shootings—using this belief to block efforts at sensible gun safety legislation. Yet, it is this same belief in the “valiant” use of guns for “protection” that likely informed what was perceived as appropriate and acceptable behavior for 17-year-old Kyle Rittenhouse to shoot and kill protesters at a Black Lives Matter protest last year in Kenosha, Wisconsin. The shocking number of police officers and current or former members of the armed forces who participated in the January 6th insurrection at the U.S. Capitol further reveals the thread that connects “good” and “bad” uses of violence—demonstrating the complexity of researching but also confronting violent extremism. Our society wants and expects men to participate in some violence but then admonishes them when they spill over the semi-arbitrary line that divides acceptable from unacceptable violence. And with intensifying political polarization, it is no wonder that there is an increasingly narrow consensus on what forms of violence are or are not considered acceptable­—potentially leading us to a place where both ends of the political spectrum descend together into a self-justifying cycle of violence.

Behind the push, pull, and personal factors that operate together to contribute to radicalization and violent extremism, there exist pernicious gender ideologies—like patriarchy and misogyny/misogynoir—that deeply structure the acceptability of violence and implicitly inform the belief systems of many violent extremists. For instance, some gender research on violent extremism reveals that “individuals with sexist attitudes are not just more prone to violent extremist views and religious intolerance, they are also more likely to support and choose to participate in political violence.” Targeting only those individuals who engage in violence without working towards dismantling patriarchy and other forms of oppression obfuscates the broader acceptability of violence that facilitates radicalization. Although it entails an uncomfortable reckoning with “benign” militarism’s complicity in violent extremism, understanding radicalization and violent extremism in the context of a broader violent, oppressive system helps to shape a response grounded in empathy and healing rather than in further violence and domination. [KC]

Questions Raised

  • What combination of push, pull, and personal factors creates the perfect conditions for radicalization and violent extremism? What policies or other interventions are most effective in deradicalization and/or preventing violence? Are there some push, pull, or personal factors that could be more readily addressed than others?
  • What types of masculinity reject violence? How might those masculine ideals be promoted or celebrated in such a way that they are appealing to young men and boys?

Continued Reading

Promundo. (2020, July 16). Understanding the motivations that drive men’s and boy’s participation in violent extremist groups requires focus on masculinities, reveals new report. Retrieved July 13, 2021, from https://promundoglobal.org/understanding-the-motivations-that-drive-mens-and-boys-participation-in-violent-extremist-groups-requires-a-focus-on-masculinities-reveals-new-report/

Morettini, F. M. (2016, October 27). Hegemonic masculinity: How the dominant man subjugates other men, women and society. Global Policy. Retrieved July 13, 2021, from https://www.globalpolicyjournal.com/blog/27/10/2016/hegemonic-masculinity-how-dominant-man-subjugates-other-men-women-and-society

American Psychological Association. (2018, September). Harmful masculinity and violence: Understanding the connection and approaches to prevention. Retrieved July 13, 2021, from https://www.apa.org/pi/about/newsletter/2018/09/harmful-masculinity

Bjarnegård, E., Melander, E., & True, J. (2020, November). Women, Peace and Security: The sexism and violence nexus. Joint brief series: New insights on Women, Peace and Security (WPS) for the next decade. Stockholm: Folke Bernadotte Academy, PRIO and UN Women. Retrieved July 13, 2021, from https://fba.se/contentassets/46391654ca6b4d8b995018560cb8ba8e/research_brief_bjarnegard_et_al_webb.pdf

Beyond Conflict. (2020, June). America’s divided mind: Understanding the psychology that drives us apart. Retrieved July 13, 2021, from https://beyondconflictint.org/americas-divided-mind/

Bjarnegård, E., & Piscopo, J. M. (2021, January 21). Gender and white supremacist violence. Political Violence @ a Glance. Retrieved July 13, 2021, from https://politicalviolenceataglance.org/2021/01/21/angry-men-who-dont-like-women-gender-and-white-supremacist-violence/

Organizations

Promundo: https://promundoglobal.org/ 

Beyond Conflict: https://beyondconflictint.org/

Keywords: radicalization, violent extremism, meta-analysis, grievances, behavioral factors, cognitive factors, masculinity

Photo credit: library2_0 via Flickr

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